Paul Chan, born in 1973, is a child of his time. He has cast aside modernism’s Big Ideas and is free of any kind of canon. He refers just as easily to French philosopher Charles Fourier (1772-1837) as he does to hip hop star Jay-Z. The Old Testament, hardcore porn, Samuel Beckett, daytime TV, the Black Panthers, Guy Debord and his Society of the Spectacle—for Chan this is all source material of equal value and utility.
Chan is beyond postmodernism as well, though. He does not play non-committal word games, showing off his cleverness and bubbling with irony. He is a man with a mission, a man who cares, acts, and takes responsibility. He is politically engaged in a passionate and personal way. Although backing away from the role of figurehead, he sympathizes with the Occupy Movement. In New York he was a co-founder of the local chapter of Indymedia, a network of independent media. And in 2002, right before the US invasion of Iraq, he was invited by human rights group Voices in the Wilderness to visit Baghdad and, as part of a so-called Peace Team, he illegally imported medicine and food.
Although Chan insists on keeping his life as an activist separate from his work as an artist, a lot of politics seeps through in his art. It’s not without reason that Hans Ulrich Obrist identified him a couple of years ago as “one of the main protagonists of a new political art movement in the USA.” It’s maybe not so obvious for whomever sees only a single work by Chan as part of a group show—his lighter works are rather popular in the international biennial circuit—but there is no escaping it in a solo show such as the one currently at Schaulager.
Paul Chan, Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000-2003, digital video projection (color, sound), 17'20'', The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fractional and promised gift of David Teiger; © Paul Chan, photo: Paul Chan
Paul Chan – Selected Works has an almost perfect build-up that only reveals itself after one has gone through the entire exhibition and adequately digested what’s on show. Starting point for the zigzagging journey through Chan’s complex world is the animated video Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier). In this key work dating from 2000-2003 the artist paints a picture of the 21st century world as a man-made hell. Girls are beaten and subsequently set on fire; soldiers routinely empty machineguns on crowds; houses are destroyed while businessmen rush by talking into cell phones and priests pretend to be deaf. Aesthetically the coarse imagery is somewhere between vintage Super Mario and South Park, but the atmosphere is akin to the Chapman brothers’ horror shows. Artistic references abound—from Diane Arbus (some of the girls) to Hans Bellmer (the creatures constructed out of mutilated body parts) and photojournalist Nick Ut’s iconic image of a girl running naked after a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.
The Henry Darger and Charles Fourier in the title are respectively an American artist and a French socialist philosopher. Darger’s 15,000-page manuscript, discovered shortly before his death in 1973 and nowadays qualifying as one of the finest examples of outsider art, brings to life a fantastic children’s world where all is not well. Fourier came up with a theory of human evolution that identifies our era as one of “perfidy, injustice, constraint, poverty, revolutions and bodily weakness.” Chan obviously takes after Darger and Fourier. His worldview is dystopian to the bone.
Paul Chan, My birds... trash... the future, 2004, Two-channel digital video projection on screen (color, sound), 16'36'', Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, gift of the president, 2012, on permanent loan to the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel; © Paul Chan, photo: Paul Chan
But Chan does not settle for a fantasy world or theoretical construction. The concrete focal point of his criticism is US foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. He processes the war on terror in many different ways. In 1st Light, Chan’s very first light work, falling bodies remind us of 9/11. His wonderfully executed charcoal drawings of Saddam Hussein, Abu Ghraib, the White House, and lots of vultures tell a story of all sides being wrong. This fundamental and inevitable failure of man is spelled out to the extreme in the downright depressing, but fascinating, animation My birds…. trash…. the future. In front of thick, black clouds of smoke and underneath a dead tree a group of soldiers pass the time, not unlike the protagonists in Waiting for Godot, while the world falls apart.
There is no mistaking Chan’s intentions but a certain ambiguity cannot be denied; beauty and the apocalypse go hand in hand, judgment is never clear cut, solutions are suggested but also rejected. And this uneasy combination of opposites is fundamental. The artist localizes its source in language, the tool we have to name and identify the world but which never truly coincides with the reality it signifies. Language is very important in Chan’s art and books are its archetypical carrier. References to the Bible, the book of books, probably harken back to his upbringing in Nebraska. Chan invents revolutionary new fonts, trying to uncover the real emotional meaning behind words. His press, Badlands Unlimited, publishes a wide range of texts, including the sculpture Holiday, which is a parable carved into a slab of stone not unlike the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
In his latest series of sculptures Chan tries to capture the social systems underpinning the construct of language. They consist of large numbers of shoes connected to each other with electrical cords—a rather straightforward but powerful depiction of the societal network. Adjacent to these sculptures are the video installation Sade for Sade’s sake and My laws are my whores, comprising portraits of Supreme Court justices hung upside down. Again, Chan displays a low esteem for the institutions governing the human chaos. Corruption is inevitable. We as humans are bound to fail.
It is in this finale of the exhibition, on the basement level, that the presentation becomes somewhat unbalanced. The shoe-and-electrical-cord sculptures have been made specifically for this show and one gets the impression that if Chan would have given this work some time to mature, he would have shown less of it. Now it’s just a bit repetitive and slows down the pace. And that’s a shame, since on the whole this is an extremely well-conceived presentation, which expounds a complex system of thought but at the same time is visually attractive.
(Image on top: Paul Chan, The argument: Antietam, 2013, Volumes, 2012 and Tablet 3, 2014, exhibition view; © Paul Chan, photo: Tom Bisig)